This article argues that ‘The Annihilation of Nothing’ (1958) by Thom Gunn (1929-2004) contains a transformation of architectural knowledge into poetic knowledge that produces an ethics of poetry. The influential architectural notion of ‘form follows function’ is the bridge between architectural knowledge and the poetic knowledge of Gunn’s poem. The relationship between form and subject matter — in architectural translation: form and function — is a vivid theme of Gunn’s poetry, which expresses itself through concepts of doubleness, antinomy and paradox. The paradoxical manner in which ‘The Annihilation of Nothing’ explores how form follows function supports comparison with the treatment of these notions within two architectural paradigms: that of the modernist period, and that of the scholastic or medieval period. Furthermore, each paradigm plays a role in the elaboration of the ethics of poetry of ‘The Annihilation of Nothing.’ Significant architectural discourses prioritise the vital importance of the form-function relationship to all living beings. An ethics of architecture infuses Theodore W Adorno’s statement that ‘Architecture worthy of human beings thinks better of men than they actually are,’ the mechanism of which is grounded in the relationship of form and function. ‘Architecture would thus attain a higher standard the more intensely it reciprocally mediated the two extremes — formal construction and function.’ Neil Leach hails Adorno’s advocacy for ‘an architecture of generosity’. An architectural ethics of the betterment of people, Adorno suggests, is tied to generous environments of superabundant form and function. This article argues that an Adornian ethical intensity of form and function is present in ‘The Annihilation of Nothing.’ However, reference to the scholastic architectural tradition reveals that this ethics of poetry is not driven by generosity alone. Erwin Panofsky’s thesis that, in medieval architecture, form follows function in a gratuitous mode, is paralleled in Gunn’s poem, which further intensifies the operations of form and function corralled within ‘The Annihilation of Nothing.’ Generosity and the gratuitous — concepts borrowed from separate architectural paradigms — inhabit Gunn’s poem and jointly produce its ethical power. Adorno’s uplifting ethics, linked to ‘a higher standard’ of architecture, results from the intensive interplay of form and function. Gunn’s poem is ethical because it is the intersection of relationships of form and function remarkably different in their architectural lineage but identical in how they create a superabundance of form and function. Technology, whether architectural or poetic, betters human beings by drawing out what Adorno calls their ‘productive energies’.
Keywords: architecture; Erwin Panofsky; ethics; form and function; modernist; poetry; scholasticism; Theodore W Adorno; Thom Gunn